Paul Reed Smith
Published in PM April 2008
People + Opinion : Industry / Music Biz
Probably the best column in the world... Transcribed by Gary Cooper.
Performing Musician: Any chance of a happier story this month? Something uplifting, now that Spring's here? By the way, did you notice, they've changed the cheese in the rolls?
Pub Genius: You mean they've got fresh rolls at the bar!?
PM: No, they just changed the cheese. I think they were worried about the mice and that incident with the RSPCA
Pub Genius: An uplifting story, eh? Well, how about a young man who took on one of the world's biggest guitar makers in the US Supreme Court — and won?
PM: Just the ticket! And who would be the young gentleman?
Pub Genius: I've told you before about that Dickens habit. The 'young gentleman' is Mr Paul Reed Smith — along with Bob Taylor, one of the shining stars of US guitar making.
PM: So... where's the lawsuit?
Pub Genius: Patience! First we have to get our hero from nowhere to the courtroom steps. Like a thousand young guitar builders before him, Paul Reed Smith began by taking other people's guitars apart to see how they worked. Strangely, the first he ever 'built' in the early 1970s was a bass, which he called 'a dyslexic Strat' — I suppose you might say it was a start
PM: I don't get that.
Pub Genius: Of course you don't. Anyway, after that exercise, the young Smith somehow wangled a job as a guitar repairman in a music shop in Maryland, went to college, dropped out of college, then moved to Annapolis where, showing remarkable self-confidence, he began talking himself backstage at local gigs, where he'd show his guitar ideas to whoever was in town that week.
PM: You'd think that would happen in almost every town in America.
Pub Genius: It probably did, but already Smith must have been showing real promise, as his first customer was legendary headbanger Ted Nugent. But then he sold another, to Peter Frampton — and this was in 1976, when Frampton had temporarily replaced Eric Clapton as God.
PM: So he was making a lot of guitars?
Pub Genius: Not really, but he was scoring some awesome endorsers, including Al Di Meola and Bruce Springsteen's bassist, Gary Tallent. All the same, by 1977 he had still only made 17 guitars — they were just going to the right people.
PM: What made them so good?
Pub Genius: Probably what has always attracted people to PRS — his guitars were what a lot of people felt the big guys should have been making, but often weren't in the 1970s. Despite all the usual ups and downs and money shortages, Smith managed to keep going, still scoring hits with influential players, including Heart's Howard Leese and Nancy Wilson. Leese's guitar was important, because it was his main instrument for 15 years and featured Smith's first curly maple top. Using highly decorative woods was to become a hallmark, and having Leese use the guitar on a succession of million sellers did PRS a huge favour.
PM: So it was full steam ahead?
Pub Genius: Certainly after Carlos Santana bought one, it was. Smith had always wanted Santana to play one of his guitars, but there were a few problems along the way before, in the end, the great man had a maple-topped PRS that he used for many years. Part of the deal was that he supplied a vibrato that actually worked — Smith managed it, and Santana went on to be a one-man advertisement for PRS.
PM: Are we near the lawsuit yet?
Pub Genius: Not quite. Smith still wasn't making any money, so he tried to sell his designs to Yamaha, Guild and Kramer, none of whom were willing to do a deal. So, in the end, he decided that the only way was to design a guitar that combined the best of Gibson and Fender in one. He wasn't the first to have tried that, but he was the one that pulled it off and, in 1984, he released what most people today think of as the classic PRS twin cutaway. By common consent, it was fabulous.
PM: This was the turning point?
Pub Genius: About then, he sold a lot of guitars to the famous Sam Ash stores in New York. With that order behind him, Smith was able to get production started. 1985 was the year it all began to happen.
PM: What did they cost?
Pub Genius: That's an interesting question. A PRS has never been cheap. According to an excellent book on the subject (The PRS Guitar Book, by Dave Burrluck), in 1985, a US-made Fender Vintage Strat cost $750, a Gibson Les Paul Standard cost $999, but a fully loaded PRS Custom would set you back $1550. All the same, the PRS oozed quality and class, and people were willing to pay to savour it. By the 1990s, Smith was really starting to make some serious inroads into the market and then, in 1994, he really tweaked Gibson's nose by launching his McCarty model.
PM: Ted McCarty? The, umm Gibson guy?
Pub Genius: Well done, Grasshopper! Yes, indeed, the President of Gibson between 1950 and 1966, and the man responsible for the humbucking pickup, the Tune-o-matic bridge, the Les Paul, the ES-335, the Flying V, the Firebird....
PM: So how did he get involved with PRS?
Pub Genius: Smith sought him out in Hawaii in 1986 and basically "downloaded the hard drive", as he once put it. McCarty was a guru to Smith, until his death in 2001.
PM: How did this affect the lawsuit?
Pub Genius: I think it hurt Gibson's pride — that their sometime President and guitar genius had joined forces with this upstart kid. So when, in 2000, PRS launched the single-cutaway Singlecut, Gibson sued and, initially won, claiming Smith was trying to pass off his guitars as Les Pauls.
PM: But hadn't everyone made copies?
Pub Genius: Of course — and many still do. It was an absurd action: Gibson were decades too late to complain and, anyway, there were plenty of far better targets. Many simply concluded they were suffering from wounded pride because some kid had reminded them how to build guitars. All the same, it went to the Supreme Court, which finally threw out Gibson's claim — but that took until 2005. Lawyers, eh?
PM: So — a happy story at last!
Pub Genius: It gets better. Last year PRS started work on a huge new factory, sales are through the roof and they're finally going to be launching acoustic models.
PM: I can't think of many young companies that successful!
Pub Genius: Oh, I don't know, there's the Wychwood Brewery, whose fine Hobgoblin ale is....
PM: It always comes down to this, doesn't it?
Pub Genius: Slowly, the mystery of Zen reveals itself.
PM: A pint, then? I suppose I can't offer you a cheese roll too, can I?
Pub Genius: Thank you, no, I'd hate to deprive the mice. But see if they've got any badger and onion crisps, will you?
PM: Oh! Strat! Dyslexic! Start! I get it!
Pub Genius: <sigh> 0
Published in PM April 2008
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